Typically an established Big Ten program does not rely on freshman contributing. Somewhat surprisingly even after a few years of Jerry Kill building a program that has more depth and balance, the Gophers still have been getting more snaps out of freshman than I would have imagined at this point of the Kill Era. Some of this is due to injury and some is just because these kids have earned the right to play.
In 2014 you saw four true freshmen who participated in at least 12 of the team's 13 games. Steven Richardson was the leader of the pack starting 12 games and making an impact with 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. Impressive for an "undersized" defensive tackle who was lightly recruited having only offers from MAC schools. Craig James also played meaningful snaps, Andrew Stetler was thrust into action as injuries mounted and Gaelin Elmore was also a pleasant surprise along the defensive line getting snaps in 13 games while starting 1.
This begs the question...what freshmen will have the biggest impact on the 2015 season?
Tough to say because often players step up to fill a void that is created by injury or other unforeseen circumstances. But there have been freshmen every year who contribute, lets take a look at some likely candidates.
So often the opportunity to contribute and stand out comes down to opportunity. Demry Croft is coming in as a true freshman quarterback, it is highly unlikely that he will be getting very many (read not any) snaps because of a certain junior and redshirt sophomore ahead of him on the depth chart. This year I suspect a redshirt freshman or two (or three) will have a bigger impact than any true freshman. This stems from positional opportunity as much as anything else. The largest opportunities are clearly on the offensive side of the ball, starting at wide receiver.
- Melvin Holland Jr
- Isaiah Gentry
- Desmond Gant
- Jerry Gibson
Remember these names and quickly learn their numbers because these four all stand a great chance to earn playing time at receiver. Throughout last season this group of redshirters earned praise from practice and much is expected of them if our passing offense is going to take a step forward. Personally I am most excited about Holland Jr, but Gentry and Gibson have also received plenty of notoriety. Having one or two who are capable of earning valuable playing time this season and making plays in the Big Ten would be a huge boost to the offense.
But there is another skill position that needs to be discussed with potential breakout freshmen and that is a group of players tasked with replacing David Cobb at running back.
- Jeff Jones
- Rodney Smith
Jeff Jones is the headlining name here and perhaps the one who can step on to the field and help ease the loss of David Cobb the most. Jones was the biggest recruit to choose the Gophers in years (ever) and after having to sit out last season, this year is going to be his first chance to make an impact. Were I to put a poll at the bottom of this post, I suspect Jones would be the winner. But lets not forget about Smith who was able to practice all season last year and from that standpoint has a leg up on Jones. Smith is a talented back as well and should be getting touches this fall.
Defensively I'm not expecting much out of the redshirt freshman class to contribute. Several true freshmen from last year's class all contributed including the four I mentioned plus Gary Moore, Everett Williams, Jonathan Celestin and Andrew Stetler. The one name worth watching would be Julien Kafo who could work himself into the rotation at defensive end.
Projecting this becomes more difficult., but I'll give you a few names to consider.
OL - Tyler Moore - Moore was an early enrollee, has been through spring practices and has been able to spend months in the strength & conditioning program. Those are big advantages, look at what it did for Connor Mayes last year who saw his redshirt burned as a true freshman. Already coming in with good size and with the skill set to play center, Moore has a chance to earn his way on to the two-deep very early in his Gopher career.
RB - Jonathan Femi-Cole - this is a position that is open and just waiting for someone to step in and earn some carries. JFC is a physical freak and his size may allow him to handle the rigors of being a Big Ten running back. Not likely going to be a week one starter but my mid-season could be earning some carriers. I'm not putting much confidence in this one, just listing it as an option.
DB - Dior Johnson - Ever year there is a true freshman d-back who gets playing time. Last year it was Craig James, this year? Johnson is a talented, four-star incoming recruit who stands a great chance at fitting into the safety rotation. With several seniors in the defensive backfield, there is a need to get guys reps and up to speed quickly.
DB - Ray Buford - Good height for a corner and with Buford's athleticism he is a prime candidate to play as an extra corner in the rotation. I do not expect major contributions but would not at all be surprised to see Buford playing this fall.
So if you were to put me on the spot I would say that you are going to get spot contributions from a few true freshmen this year in Moore, Johnson and Buford. None of them will have a significant impact (barring injury) but those three will earn time and not be allowed to redshirt.
The real contributions from from those who redshirted last season. Melvin Holland Jr, Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson will all have double-digit receptions and will all score a touchdown. Those may not seem like much but bear in mind that we had only one player with more than 18 receptions last year. Running the ball, I'm going to go with the Jeff Jones hype train. He was getting a lot of reps at receiver in the spring which tells me that they just want to get this kid on the field. He will see time at running back and maybe some at receiver as well but by season's end he will be an integral part of this offense.
There you have it, my thoughts on potential freshmen impact players. Who did I miss?